Directed By: Sergio Leone
Starring: Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern
Tag line: "As boys, they said they would die for each other. As men, they did"
Trivia: The U.S. distributor reportedly failed to file the proper paperwork so that Ennio Morricone's score, regarded as one of his best, could be put up for nomination for an Academy Award
There was a stretch of about six months in the late '80s when I watched Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America every single week, which had my family and friends questioning my sanity. How could I repeatedly sit through a 229-minute movie, they asked, especially one that no longer held any surprises for me? Of course, those posing such questions had never seen the film.
Once Upon a Time in America is the story of a group of street-wise kids who went after their share of the American Dream they only way they knew how. Starting at an early age, running errands for local New York crime bosses in the 1920s, David “Noodles” Aaronson (Robert DeNiro) and his friends, Max (James Woods), Patsy (James Hayden) and Cockeye (William Forsythe), soon blazed a trail into the world of organized crime. Aside from owning and operating a successful nightclub, where the booze continued to flow during the dark days of prohibition, the four also hired themselves out as hit men, usually handling jobs set up by gangster Frankie Minaldi (Joe Pesci). But when Max plans a daring, highly dangerous robbery, Noodles gets nervous, setting in motion a chain of events that will alter their lives forever.
Once Upon a Time in America is an extraordinary motion picture, from the way Leone follows his characters' meteoric rise in the criminal underworld to its stunning re-creation of early 20th century America, captured so vividly by cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli. The score composed by Ennio Morricone is among his finest ever, often relying on the gentle sound of a solitary flute to speak for the wounded souls of the film's protagonists. There are quiet, special moments, like when a young Noodles (played by Scott Tiler) peers at Deborah (Jennifer Connelly) through a peephole as she practices her dancing, or when Max meets Noodles outside the prison gates, a light rain adding a sense of melancholy to an otherwise happy reunion. There’s even magic in the violence, which Leone handles with his usual gusto. Once Upon a Time in America is a movie to cherish, a true work of art, and to dedicate nearly four hours to such a film is, in my opinion, a small sacrifice to make.
I think it was Roger Ebert who once said “No good movie is too long, and no bad movie is short enough”. Check out Once Upon a Time in America, and you'll know exactly what he means.